Autumn Leaves

So much seasonal excitement that it’s easy to take some things, like your heart and your breath, for granted. That’s what this time is for: Autumn Equinox. Harvestide. A time of thanksgiving for the many wonderful people and plants that have appeared at the nursery and given their all. This equinox, I choose a perch above the West Bank salad terrace as my “sit spot” to reflect on the fading growing season.

It’s not the most picturesque location. Tucked at the lower end of the site, it doesn’t command the sweeping forest and cityscape views of the vineyard or Poets Corner above the Entrance Field. There’s still a lot of dirty black plastic keeping the horsetail down. And the concrete paths that define the terraces, a legacy of the council bedding bays, lend the space a harder, more artificial flavour than the curving swards of the Orchard or Old Kitchen Garden.

But it’s those same cement slabs and level terra firma that made the West Bank the obvious choice for intensively managed,  garden scale,  raised beds of leaves.

Here, on Tuesday mornings, come rain – or, more often – shine, you will find many of the aforementioned wonderful people , carrying out all the planting, weeding, picking and troubleshooting that goes into our signature product – mixed salad leaves.

This year, our mix has featured 37 different leaves; 48 different plant cultivars; and seven different edible flowers. Not all have been triumphs, and still, more often than not, the blend, or the quality, is imperfect. But no excuses or complaints: I can’t imagine a better growing season for salad.

That hot, dry April and May brought out glorious swansongs in the winter lettuce and rocket, whilst getting the spring-sown freshers to maturity, quickly and slug-free. Then, in the ensuing warmth and moisture, they just got on with it. The shade cloths and seep hose barely called into action: all the hard graft Huf, Ed and Sonny put into overhauling the irrigation systemwas repaid elsewhere: under glass, and on thirsty apple maidens.

We’ll be getting salad off the terraces and, even at sub-zero, out of the glasshouse, almost every week of the year. So, as we ponder the dark times ahead, we can console ourselves with the thought that the young chicories, mizunas, endives, winter purslanes et al will be a constant source of freshness through the winter; a bridge between the lost summer and the distant horizon of spring; colour in the absence of broadleaves and flowers.

Cold snaps will make their texture tougher, but also convert some of their starches into sugars. Autumn and winter: I’ll take them hard, sweet, dependable: and be thankful.

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